Recently I’ve been making some changes. Let’s call them microchanges. It sounds less scary.
Over the past twenty years, we’ve worked at international schools in Colombia, Mexico, Spain, Thailand and Japan so it wouldn’t be SO crazy for you to think that I’d be really good at change. Comfortable at the very least. Masterful even. The truth is that I sort of suck. When it comes to structure and routine, I live at the very outer limits of what is possible for a person who has created a life overseas. That is to say that if I needed more structure, even the tiniest bit more, I could not have left home and thrived.
Right. So not so great at change.
Lately, however, Life has been tapping its foot with growing impatience. Life, as it turns out, does not like to be kept waiting and is not even remotely interested in my reluctance to change things up. Writing, in particular, has been behaving badly and kicking up a terrible fuss in the back seat of my life.
I have two Young Adult novel projects simmering in my creative-cauldron. The 38 Impossible Loves of Naoko Nishizawa is on its 3rd draft and I’m currently writing the first draft of After Everything which began as my NaNo WriMo (National Novel Writing Month) novel last November. The story opens with a teenager named Claire who wakes up in a lush green field. She’s dressed in a long white nightgown that she senses she would never have chosen for herself and she doesn’t know where she is and she can’t remember how she got there… or anything else about her life. It turns out that she is dead.
So although I’m super excited about both stories, I’ve been feeling frustrated about not making much progress since January. “Not much progress” is a lie. It was no progress at all. In the place of actual writing, I had been just thinking about my novels which is not at all the same thing and does not get the job done.
I decided to make a change.
Are you at your best in the morning or late at night? For me, eleven o’clock at night sounds like a great time to START writing but that doesn’t allow me to get enough sleep to function during the work day. I am such a night owl, in fact, that I’ve always told myself a story in which I could not possibly get up any earlier. Because I need eight full hours of sleep, I had convinced myself that going to bed earlier would make me feel (not vaguely but PRECISELY) like a very old + very sad person.
But what if that story wasn’t true?
So I set my alarm clock for six o’clock instead of seven o’clock. If you are an early riser, try to be compassionate about this because, for me, six o’clock is still the middle of the night. When I woke up to my alarm the first day, I got right out of bed and went to grab my computer from my knapsack only to realize that I hadn’t brought it home from school so, instead, I wrote in a journal with pink flamingoes on the cover. And the words just poured out of me, ten pages of words, and I thought, “Shit. This is magical.” And I am not gonna lie, I was tired at two o’clock in the afternoon and getting into bed at nine o’clock that night was not magical but it was okay. So I wrote in my journal for three mornings in a row and I tried not to think about the question of when I would type up these pages and how long that task would take. Then, on the fourth morning, I tried writing on my laptop and I had a hard time getting started so I stared at the ceiling for a while and then that got boring so I started writing. And what I write between six and seven is not always eloquent prose but sometimes it is and the plot keeps marching forward with courage and assurance and the characters keep doing interesting things and Claire is even more rebellious than I imagined and I have enormous patience for her neuroses and fear and I love her like a parent might love a child. And one morning, when I awoke at six o’clock, I realised that I didn’t feel well so I re-set my alarm clock for seven o’clock and I slept soundly for that extra hour and had a good day at work and I didn’t let myself freak out or worry that I had messed it all up. I just chose not to believe that. The next day, when the alarm went off, I got up and wrote.
Since I began my early morning writing, I read about what Martha Beck calls “turtle steps” or small steps in the direction of your dreams. That was exactly what I was doing. I didn’t quit my job or begin writing for six hours a day, forsaking all fun things in my life; I simply adjusted my schedule slightly to include one hour of writing every morning. On the round table at my office there is a wooden turtle I bought in Bali several years ago and I’ve started to look at him differently in these past few weeks. Wise old turtle. And I’ve been wondering what else I could take some turtle steps towards.
Then, a few days after encountering the idea of “turtle steps”, I was listening to a podcast where the interviewee shared a quote by Donald Miller: “Turn your toes towards the thing that you are afraid to pursue.” That resonated too. Sometimes we’re afraid to pursue the things we most want so we keep getting in our own way, making up excuses and unhelpful stories. We need to turn our toes ever so slightly.
As of today, I have written 25,000 words of After Everything. Of that total, I have written 15,000 of those words over the last two weeks, in the hours between six and seven o’clock in the morning.
Although I’m a pretty confident person, I did not know that I could do that. I had told myself a story that was holding me back. And that story, as it turns out, is just not true.
We should not believe everything we think.
Taking the turtle steps in writing this novel has made me giddy and hopeful. I’m also taking turtle steps to give up caffeine. It’s not sexy but it’s good.
So I wondered, lovely one, what stories are getting in your way… and what turtle steps might you take to get you closer, little by little, to something that would fill you with joy?
This post was first published as The Sunday Reader. To receive The Sunday Reader directly in your inbox every two weeks, you can subscribe here.
I’d love it if you would share this post.